I saw him for the first time when I was walking home from the fourth grade on a hot August day. As I scurried across the street, a small, elderly man on his hands and knees caught the corner of my eye, as I approached his front yard. The smoldering sun already had me sweating, when I looked upon this tiny old man, who was himself saturated. His weathered skin proved a lifetime of working outside, but his smile portrayed his heart in that very moment.
“Hi,” I quickly exchanged, and picked up my pace to get to my house two doors down.
Little did I know, this quick exchanged would lead to a friendship and relationship that 18 years later is still one of my most cherished possessions.
This man was more than my neighbor. He began by doing the neighborly thing and mowing our yard, to help my single-mother, raising three kids. He then cooked breakfast for us every morning, as we walked to his house before school to just hang out. Then came the times I sat on his lap, while he widdled my dull pencil to a point with his pocket knife, as he coached me through long division. Snow days proved glorious, as we had an all day long, and never-ending tournament of the board game “Sorry.” His spit can stained our game board. Sunday evenings were my coveted days, as he sat in his lawn chair to the left of the screen door on his front porch, and myself in my own lawn chair to the right of that squeaky door. He read his romance novels, while I buried myself in my chapter books. Yet, the most fun thing I ponder on are these nights he would sip his coffee that he first poured into his saucer, and I gulped down my Wild Cherry Pepsi in a can.
My fourth grade Spring and Summer came unintended hard-work and empathy lessons. He led me to my favorite smell in the whole world: fresh cut grass, through lessons of mowing yards. It was the “who” we mowed yards for though, that proved one of the greatest life’s lessons. Widows. Elderly women in our small, farm town community that needed someone to take care of their lawn. The empathy I felt for these women was immense, even at my young age. We always sat on their front porch after we finished, sipping lemonade and some sweet treat they had whipped up. Some days I ask myself, if God was telling me something way before I could imagine my life today.
Most importantly, this man taught me that time given is the greatest gift any of us can give. He was my best friend, and I did everything with him. I wanted to be at his house, rather than hanging out with my friends at ten years old. He taught me how to cook, how to do math, he taught me how to work, he taught me how to save money, he taught me how to “just be.” He taught me there was no stereotype on friendships and love. He taught me that God knew exactly what He was doing when he places those least expected into our lives.
17 years ago today, January 27, was the day I experienced my first soul-shattering loss. My best friend, the man I only refer to as my grandpa, left this world to cancer. He wasn’t my grandpa, not by blood; but he was the closest thing I had ever had to a grandpa–still to this day. He waited many years here on Earth without his wife, whom I never had the pleasure of meeting. The way he still talked about her, was the way I knew I wanted to love my own husband, one day. And I did. The way tears still fell from his eyes as he reminisced during our front porch chats, hurts my soul even more now as I now know the longing that was in his heart for her.
I have often wandered since Joe has been gone, what they say to each other, what the other one thinks of the other. Then I remember, they have one girl who they both loved with all of their hearts. And I also remember, my amazing husband allowed me to name our son after this elderly man. That’s when I know they love each other, and must have so much to talk about, watching as a little boy who carries both of their names, becomes a great man, just like both of them.
This is my seventeenth year beyond the first year without my sweet, precious, John Deere-loving Bert. And my heart still aches at how much I miss him. Just one more time, I would love to hear, “I do you, too, Sister. I do you too,” in response to my parting words every time I hugged him, “I love you Bert.”
I love you Bert. I will always love you. Until we meet again, my sweet grandpa.